With 44 countries represented last season, the NBA has grown into the most diverse league in sports history.
In 1949, the Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball League merged to form a 17-team league known as the National Basketball Association. Sixty-seven years later, the NBA and its 30 franchises generated nearly $8B in annual revenue.
Between then and now, much has obviously changed—including the NBA outgrowing its very name. Despite its continued basis in the United States and Canada, the NBA has become increasingly international throughout the years. To date, an unparalleled 80 countries and territories have been represented on an NBA roster, while the league’s foreign viewership has skyrocketed.
Ultimately, the effects of the NBA’s expanding global footprint have been both incredibly philanthropic and extremely profitable. Yet how did this “melting pot” league come to be? And what does it mean for the future of the game as we know it?
A Brief History
In 1946, Italian-Canadian guard Hank Biasatti became the first foreign player to join the premier American basketball league, at that time still known as the BAA. He played six games with the Toronto Huskies and later appeared as an MLB first baseman with the Philadelphia Athletics. Yet while Biasatti’s recognition is certainly an honor, the NBA would continue as a largely domestic league for decades still to come.
In fact, between 1946 and 1983, only 17 foreign players appeared in the NBA. That all changed when David Stern succeeded Larry O’Brien as the fourth Commissioner of the NBA in 1984.
From the outset, Stern’s goal was to expand the NBA from a national industry to a global commodity. Luckily, his aims coincided with the arrival of a soon-to-be international superstar that same year: Hakeem Olajuwon of Nigeria.
Drafted first overall out of the University of Houston by the hometown Rockets, Olajuwon became the first true foreign player to be selected No. 1 by an NBA team (1978 top pick Mychal Thompson was born in the Bahamas but raised in Miami). Olajuwon eventually became the first non-American to win the NBA MVP award after a decade of dominating play.
The trend continued as Jamaica-born center Patrick Ewing was drafted atop the 1985 class, which also included future All-Star Detlef Schrempf of Germany, Manute Bol of Sudan, and Real Madrid center Fernando Martín, the first foreign player selected without prior U.S. college experience. The 1980s would conclude with the arrivals of prominent Euro-stars Vlade Divac, Šarūnas Marčiulionis, and Dražen Petrovíc. Yet while a significant fan base certainly accompanied each foreign player, it was not until 1992 that Stern finally realized his dream.
In 1989, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) approved a stipulation allowing NBA and other professional players to participate in the Olympic Games. The opportunity materialized in Barcelona during the summer of ‘92. Both American and international spectators were amazed by the talents of the greatest players in the game competing together on a single national squad, now known as the Dream Team. The roster was astounding: Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Larry Bird, and Christian Laettner. The U.S. team won the gold that year and every year since, with the exception of 2004.
Following such groundbreaking global exposure, elite players abroad began flocking to the NBA in search of competition, fame, and fortune via salary and sponsorships. Eight of the next 25 NBA drafts were headlined by a foreign selection, while later picks included Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, and Pau Gasol. These modern legends will someday join Petrovic, Olajuwon, Ewing, Marčiulionis, Bob Houbregs, Arvydas Sabonis, Dikembe Mutombo, and Yao Ming as the only international players enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
A Global League
In recent years, international influence has saturated the NBA. Overseas players comprised nearly 47% of the 2016 NBA draft class, including a record 15 first-rounders. This year, another 14 foreign draftees joined them.
The trend has become so pronounced that in 2015, the league amended the format of its annual Rising Stars Challenge to pit Team World vs. Team USA, showcasing the leading rookies and sophomores from around the globe.
Including those who entered the league undrafted, 111 foreign players are currently under contract for the upcoming 2017-18 season, equaling nearly four per franchise. Three ranked within the Top 20 NBA players by win shares last year: Rudy Gobert, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Nikola Jokić.
While increased exposure through television and the Olympics continue to factor into the game’s popularity abroad, the NBA has recently begun to make concerted efforts to expand overseas through player camps and other philanthropic endeavors.
In 2011, a program led by Luc Mbah a Moute in his home country of Cameroon led to the discovery of Joel Embiid, who was invited to the second NBA Africa Game earlier this week. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant hosted a record 3,459 children at a basketball clinic in India just last month.
Further ventures include Basketball Without Borders, which has led to the discovery of over 25 eventual NBA players and will be held this summer in Israel and the Bahamas, as well as the independent non-profit Seeds of Peace.
First attended by Brent Barry, Antawn Jamison, Carlos Boozer, and Mike Dunleavy Jr. in 2002, the Seeds of Peace camp in rural Maine brings together youth from rival eastern countries such as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, and neighboring Arab nations. This summer, Detroit Pistons vice chairman and former super-agent Arn Tellem invited along Ish Smith, Henry Ellenson, and lottery pick Luke Kennard. Smith described the experience as “eye-opening,” “powerful,” and “life-changing.”
Overall, the NBA’s global expansion has done much good in the world, with many players returning overseas to give back to their home communities. Seven foreign players have received the annual J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, including Mutombo, who remains the only player to win the award twice for his humanitarian efforts in the Congo.
However, the international growth has been just as lucrative for the NBA’s value and revenue. In addition to an expanded market for physical merchandise, including jerseys and other collectibles, the NBA has also opened the door for unprecedented television broadcasting contracts worldwide. In 2015, the NBA signed an incredible five-year, $700M contract with Chinese streaming service Tencent. Meanwhile, the 2017 Finals were broadcast in 49 languages throughout 215 countries.
With an overseas scouting team firmly established for each NBA franchise, the number of international players in the league will continue to grow. However, the NBA can also expand its global influence in a variety of other ways.
NBA teams will likely continue to develop marketing schemes directed at immigrants and ethnic minorities in the hope of diversifying their fan base. Past examples include alternate team jerseys in Chinese and Spanglish in honor of the Chinese New Year and Latin Night programs.
Commissioner Adam Silver has also slowly been incorporating more official NBA games played overseas. The upcoming 2017-18 preseason will include two games between the Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves played in China. The regular season will also feature the Brooklyn Nets, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Miami Heat in Mexico City, as well as the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers in London. Past games have also been played in Japan, France, Puerto Rico, and other locations since 1990.
The most dramatic suggestion involves the NBA incorporating a permanent overseas franchise. The closest precedence for such a move occurred in 1995, when the league expanded into Canada with the addition of the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies—the first international professional basketball teams since the Toronto Huskies’ lone BAA season in 1946. However, with two MLB and eight NHL teams already established north of the border, the move was far from groundbreaking.
Another comparison is NFL Europe, which effectively operated as an overseas developmental league from 1991-2007. Despite a widespread television audience and an average 19,047 tickets sold per game, NFL Europe eventually found itself losing $30M per season. For now, travel expenses and other logistical issues will continue to deter the NBA from further expansion overseas, though Silver has mentioned Mexico City as a possible future option.
In the meantime, the NBA will continue to seek lucrative television and streaming contracts, with sights set on India as the next major market. While the globalization of the league is often overlooked, it remains one of the greatest success stories in sports history. From the Greek Freak to the Polish Hammer, the NBA will never look the same.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-reference.com
Edited by Jazmyn Brown.
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